How to survive the feast or famine of freelance writing

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Are you a feast-or-famine freelancer? Here’s how to avoid that prickly situation and give yourself a more reliable cash flow…

I’ve been a freelance writer, editor and writing coach for more than 20 years. Whenever I use the phrase “feast or famine,” I get knowing and sympathetic looks from people who understand the situation. And by “understand the situation,” I mean they’re freelancers themselves.

People who’ve collected regular, reliable pay all their lives always figure the “feast” side of the equation is the better one. (Actually, it usually isn’t. It’s exhausting.) Or they assume the biggest problem of the famine side is that it’s scary. (Sometimes it is, but more often it’s deeply boring.)

The truth is, both sides present some serious challenges. So for anyone who is a freelance writer (or a freelance anything else) here is my advice on how to minimize the disruption to your life. Be sure to read this column if you’re considering becoming a freelancer. Forewarned is forearmed.

How to prevent the feast/famine scenario

The best way to deal with the feast/famine problem is to avoid it. Do that by taking some clear steps when you’re starting your business.

1-Decide how many hours you want to work each week: Don’t be so desperate that you say yes to every job you’re offered. Instead, be specific with yourself about how many hours you’re willing to work each week. And remember, as owner of your own business, you’re also going to need a certain number of hours for maintenance (billing, organizing, marketing and miscellaneous problem-solving.) You won’t be able to charge anyone for those hours, so set a goal for how many paid hours you want to work each week. Track how many hours you work every week and don’t accept more work than you can handle. (See: 13 ways to prevent overwork from affecting your writing.)

2-Learn to estimate your writing/editing speed: Yes, every job is different, but figure out the range in which you operate. For example, some people can write 500 hard words or 750 easy ones in 30 minutes while others will struggle to produce 150 to 250 in the same time. What’s your range? If you can’t answer that question, start maintaining an Excel spreadsheet in which you note your writing and editing times (pair this with the word counts) every day. After two weeks, you’ll have a really good idea of your speed.

3-Figure out your most energetic, highly productive hours: Are you a night owl or a morning lark? And, within those broader categories, what are your three to four best, most productive hours. Plan your client work for this time. (Don’t waste it on email or filing, both of which could fill endless hours, without earning you a cent.)

4-Pay attention to your cash flow (and don’t always be super frugal): Over time, work to save some money in an “emergency fund.” I always try to have at least three month’s-worth of the salary I pay myself in my bank account at any given time. That way, if the clients suddenly dry up, I don’t have to worry about grocery money. On the one hand, if I get a big pay cheque I never blow it right away; but, on the other, I don’t fret when it’s time to buy a new computer.  I’m upgrading my hard drive this week and it’s going to cost me a pretty penny. But I have that penny saved.

5-Cultivate long-term clients: I appreciate the occasional one-hit wonder but I truly value long-term, repeat customers. And I let them know it. They get special rates from me. They receive kid-glove service. Long-term clients make the difference between a comfortable life that can be scheduled and a panic-filled life of crises. I know which life I prefer!

6-Always be marketing: No matter what phase of the cycle you are in, you always need to market your services. This may be as simple as sending out a weekly newsletter and making a half dozen contacts each week. Or it may involve direct mail. Or giving speeches/presentations. Constant marketing is the secret to having a life free of feast and famine.

How to deal with the feasts

1-Don’t take more work than you can handle: It’s tempting to feel you’re a superhero who can sweep in and accomplish more work than other (typical) people but be careful about what you do to yourself. If your work habits cost you sleep, exercise or the relationships of those you love, then you are not doing yourself any favours. You’re probably not helping your clients, either. The quality of your work will decline, which will only disappoint them. Instead of trying to be a super-freelancer, see suggestion 2, below. 

2-Get some help: If you have a hard time saying no to people, consider finding a colleague to whom you can refer some work when you’re too busy. Yes, this can be dangerous (what if the client prefers the colleague to you?) but it’s better than saying no to the client. Also, you may be able to reduce the risk to yourself by subcontracting the work and supervising its completion.

3-Don’t spend every penny you make: When you’re lucky enough to make more money than you expect, put more cash aside for those times when sales are slow. This is the one big benefit of feasting times — don’t fritter away the money you earn; save some of it to protect yourself for the future.

4-Always be marketing: Without doubt, this is the hardest task to accomplish when you are in a feast. Time is precious and in such short supply. Besides, you don’t want any more work right now, so what’s the point of marketing? The point is: you will want more work three or six months down the road. That’s why you need to market now: to line up that work for the future. I know you’ll feel you won’t have the energy for this work but treat marketing as an  IMPORTANT job that you do first in the day before you start any of your deadline driven work. (Always protect the important from the urgent.)

How to survive the famines:

1-Maintain your routine: People who’ve lost their jobs are told to get dressed as if for work every morning, leave their house and treat finding a job as their new job. You should do the same. Don’t allow yourself to sleep in ’til 11 then schlub around in your gardening jeans and tired old sweatshirt. Design your own famine routine that will keep you happy and busy despite the apparent setback in your working hours.

2-Update your resume and your portfolio file: Back when you were feasting, of course you didn’t have time to polish your resume or clip the articles you’d written. Good news! Now you have that time! Throw yourself into this task with energy knowing that when the next feast hits, you won’t have time to update it then.

3-Be more social: Back when you were busy feasting/working, you probably skipped lunch most days or grabbed a quick sandwich at your desk. Now that life is quieter, reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Also known as networking, this is not only a fun exercise but it can lead you to new clients. As well, use the extra time you have to re-establish your exercise routine and to read a few novels or see some movies. (Just as cars can’t run without either gas or electricity, writers can’t work without sufficient “fun” time. I call this filling the tank or filling the well.)

4-Always be marketing: For once, marketing will seem important to you so take advantage of this impetus. If your standard goal is to make five new contacts a week, increase the total to 20. Polish your newsletter and figure out how to make it even more attractive and relevant to your readers. Find new homes for your writing and new ways to connect with readers. Tweet more often. Post to Facebook more often (just don’t waste too much time reading it). Does your website need an update? This is the time to do it.

It’s always feast or famine in show business, said the late comedian Joan Rivers. You may not have to deal with auditions, but it’s also always feast or famine for any freelance worker. Be sure to take the steps you need to protect yourself from the ups and downs of this kind of work.

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My video podcast last week described how writers can avoid outlining.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you manage feasts and famines? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/19  will be put in a draw for a copy of the book Business Writing and Communication by Kennith W. Davis. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.